Your Elevator Pitch Only Needs to Accomplish One Thing

elevator pitch

There’s a reason it’s referred to as an “elevator pitch” – it must be expressed in a few sentences and no more than 15-20 seconds.  And that might even be a little generous.  Psychologist Michael Formica reported that the average non-task-oriented attention span of a human being is about 8 seconds.  What you must realize is the only thing your elevator pitch needs to accomplish is to cause enough interest on the part of the recipient to ask you any question.  With that, you might get an additional 2-3 minutes to expand further and hopefully generate enough interest for a full-blown conversation, either then or separately scheduled.

Setting the Stage

Here’s a scenario that actually incorporates the “elevator” metaphor.  You and I get onto a building elevator on the ground floor and we’re both going to the 16th floor.  You happen to recognize me and say something like “Hey, are you Gordon Daugherty?”, to which I reply “As a matter of fact I am, who are you?”.  You respond with “I’m Meagan, founder of Shockwave VR”.  As I respond with “Cool, what does Shockwave VR do?”, the elevator doors close and your 8 second clock starts ticking while you recite the short version of your elevator pitch.

When we get to the 16th floor and the elevator doors open, one of two things happens:

  1. I say something like “Nice to meet you Meagan, good luck with your startup venture” and proceed to walk to the break room for coffee
  2. I take a side step after exiting the elevator and say something like “That sounds interesting.  (insert any question)”

Do you notice how binary the outcome is? I either walk away forever or give you a chance to tell me more and, therefore, hopefully get me excited enough to exchange business cards and suggest that we get together for coffee to continue the discussion.

Two Sentences Will Do It

A lot of startup founders way overthink their elevator pitch. They feel like it must close the deal by incorporating anything and everything of possible interest for a variety of audiences. The opposite is true. Doing so actually makes it not interesting for all audiences and causes it to be way longer than a normal human’s attention span. What’s interesting is that coming up with something short and compelling is much harder than something more broad and complete.  It reminds me of Mark Twain’s quote, “I apologize for such a long letter – I didn’t have time to write a short one.”

Remembering that you only have 8-10 seconds of attention and that you only need to generate enough interest to cause any question, I recommend that you come up with two sentences that answer the following questions:

  1. What do you do?

    My Capital Factory colleague, Mikey Trafton, teaches startups to simplify their answer to this question using the following format:  “We help (customers) (solve problem) (for benefit)“.  An alternative format I sometimes use is “We (benefit) (target customers) so they can (gain result)”.

    Easy, right?  Just fill in the placeholders with your info.  Actually, is much harder than most people think and that’s because they are burdened by all of the knowledge they possess.

  2. Why should someone care?  (aka – so what?)

    The answer to this might be a little different depending on whether you’re talking to a prospective customer, business partner or investor.  But it must complement your first sentence that describes what you do and it must be compelling enough to give the other person no choice but to ask a question.  Make a bold claim.  See my related article titled, The “So What” Rule.

Here is an example: “Shockwave Innovations helps educate and advise startup founders so they can build great companies.  In fact, one startup we helped during their founding days reached $80M in revenue and a NASDAQ IPO”.  (best yet, it’s a true story)

Obviously, what I’m hoping for is a response like “Wow, which company reached the IPO exit?” or “What was their valuation?” or “How are they doing now?” or “How much money did you make?”  It really doesn’t matter what question they ask because it gains 2-3 minutes of additional, valuable time.

Here’s another one for a deep tech startup where I serve as a board director: “Senseye understands from your eye what’s going on in your brain.  With a standard cell phone camera, we will diagnose and measure treatment for various mental health disorders, starting with PTSD, anxiety and depression.”  Surely that elevator pitch conjures some great questions.

And a final one: “DoggieDrone offers an innovative dog-walking solution for the disabled elderly. Our drones have already completed 20,000 walks for more than 250 elderly dog owners.”  Surely lots of questions come to mind about a drone that can walk your grandmother’s dog.

Having Difficulty?  Make it Even Shorter?

Sometimes when I have trouble shortening a previously-written piece of narrative, I take it to the extreme by forcing myself to come up with something even way shorter.  So if you’re having difficulty chopping your one-pager into a couple of sentences, instead start from scratch and try to come up with something in about 5-6 words without counting words you wouldn’t capitalize in a title of an article. These are articles, conjunctions and prepositions like a, an, the, of, for, from, to etc.

Here are versions from the examples I provided above:

  • Shockwave Innovations: “We help founders build unicorns”  (5 words)
  • Senseye: “We analyze the brain through the eye” (5 words)
  • Doggie Drone: “Our drone walks your dog”  (5 words)

Sometimes, these very short responses are almost as good as the 2-sentence version, in terms of causing the recipient to ask any question.  Stop reading now for a few minutes and give it a try!

OK, I know that was a crazy hard exercise and misses a lot of the goodies that are intended to be included in an elevator pitch. So, once you get the foundational 5-6 words, feel free to add yet another 5-6 words to put just a little meat on the bone. Here are updated versions of the examples:

  • Shockwave Innovations: “We help founders fulfill their wildest dreams, while building unicorns” (5 more words)
  • Senseye: “We analyze the brain through the eye to diagnose mental health disorders” (4 more words)
  • Doggie Drone: “Our drone walks your dog so you don’t have to” (5 more words)

Hints & Tips

  • Use 8th grade vocabulary:  No complicated jargon or trendy buzzwords
  • Be specific and narrow:  If you sell multiple products to multiple types of customers, pick the single most important product and customer type for your elevator pitch
  • Make it conversational:  The way we write versus talk is different
  • Quantify with numbers or factoids:  They help certain claims sink in better

Time for a Test Drive

After working in an isolated environment it’s time to take your elevator pitch on a test drive so that it can be refined. Here is an experiment to try. Recite your elevator pitch to 20 people that don’t have much prior knowledge about your idea or your company.  It doesn’t have to be complete strangers. Maybe do this with your neighbors, relatives, former co-workers, etc. Ask them to react with the first question that comes to mind. Don’t answer their question right away. Instead, ask them to tell you what they think your company does using only the elevator pitch. Are you getting the questions you want? Is their guess about what you do in the right ballpark? If not, make changes to your elevator pitch until you’re satisfied?

Refine, Repeat, Refine, Repeat

Your elevator pitch should be so engrained in your head that without even thinking you can immediately and intuitively answer the question “What does (your company name) do?”  Say it to yourself over and over and over again and find excuses to say it to others, even if they don’t ask.  For example, when introducing yourself to someone, just say “Hi, I’m Gordon Daugherty from Shockwave Innovations.  We help startups …”  With this, you could just use the first sentence of your elevator pitch (the “what we do” part).  You should also have your co-founders and first employees memorize your elevator pitch.  At random times just ask them what your company does and see if they’ve got at least the first sentence of the pitch memorized.

As your company evolves, so should your elevator pitch.  The most compelling thing you do could change over time and certainly your most compelling “so what?” claims will change.  If not, you have bigger problems than a stagnant elevator pitch.

Variations for Different Audiences

You can use your elevator pitch with a variety of different audiences.  The most common will be investors and prospective customers.  Because of this, you will likely end up with multiple versions.  The good news is that the basic foundation and much of the messaging will be identical across all versions.  The differences will mostly be tweaks that are easy to remember.

Regarding investors, understand that a great elevator pitch alone won’t get you funded because it’s just a door opener to a longer conversation.  You’ve got to be fundable to get funded.  However, I will also say that a crappy elevator pitch can severely impact your ability to get funded even if you are truly fundable.  In other words, it can be a prerequisite to having the needed follow-on conversations with an investor prospect.


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